Hamburger on horseback

Not that you would know it from any profusion of posts around these parts, but I’m long back from vacation. When I told people beforehand that I was about to set off for five weeks in South America, they’d always ask if I was going for work or pleasure. Was it ever satisfying to unblushingly inform them that I was going for sheer, unalloyed pleasure. And some very pleasurable weeks were had. Naturally, most of those stories will never find themselves on this blog, but, being the linguistic hedonist that I am, quite a few of my gratifying language finds will make an appearance. Rightly or wrongly, language discoveries and epiphanies thrill me to no end. I eat words up. I’ll share some of the bounty of that facet of the trip one curious morsel at a time.

Location: Cali, Colombia

Hamburguesa a caballo

Would you know what that was if you saw it on a menu while out with friends? I sure didn’t. A caballo is “on horseback.” You know, A caballo vamos pal monte. A hamburger regally delivered to you atop a horse? This was the guess ventured by one of my friends from Bogotá, Lorena, when I told her about it later. She didn’t know how to make heads or tails of it. A hamburger made from horsemeat? Surely not. Friends in Medellín were equally perplexed when I quizzed them afterward. I required the services of a Hamburger Helper.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to look far. He was sitting right next to me. He was French, was 25, had abundant hair on his chest and arms (he was never to be seen in the hostel with a shirt on) . . . and that, regrettably, is all I remember about him. We also had a very nice time together at a jazz concert one night. His name is forever lost to me, though. Jacques? Mathieu? Clément? Oh, I could be here all night.

This Frenchman piped up that in French, saying that a dish is served a cheval means that it comes with a fried egg on top. Might this be the Spanish equivalent? We asked. It was. I marvelled. It is not easy to woo me, but throw your language prowess around and I melt. A fried egg on top! ¡Qué tal! Eggs and horses–just where did that twain meet? I suppose the idea is that the egg is “riding” the meat underneath it. I imagine some menu writer once fancied himself a poet, and his fellow menu writers, after a few snickers and eye rolls said, OK, why not? Who was harmed, really, in indulging him and his grandiose turns of phrase?

Wait. Wouldn’t hamburguesa a caballo mean that the hamburger was riding the horse, I mean, egg? I’d call foul, but I’d hate to kill the poetry by overanalyzing it.

A few days later, I took this picture in a food court in Cali.

Steak on horseback. You’ll notice the tomato and onion sauce acting as the saddle for the meat and eggs. This is apparently the norm. Heaven forbid an egg throw all caution to the wind and attempt to ride bareback. Or bareburger. We’ve all got to get our kicks some way.

Since I don’t know where a caballo is used (apparently Cali and perhaps some other areas as well), this one is going in the passive region of my brain. That is, the mush side. Speaking of mush, I’m reminded of another food translation snafu I hit recently. I met some delightful British gents at a bus station, and we decided to have lunch at the most American place imaginable: Waffle House. I guided them through the menu, making liberal recommendations, and then one scrunched up his face. “Um, excuse me. Would you be so kind as to explain to me what grits are?” The waitress and I laughed. How does one explain them? “Is it an animal?” I lost it with that question. Trying to think of some quasi-British equivalent, I struck on porridge. Porridge? Gruel? (Paging Oliver Twist) Aha! That did the trick. Anyway, food translations are always great fun. Do share your food-language stories (successes and surprises) in the comments– I’ve got plenty more stories myself.

What about you? Have you ever encountered “a caballo” on menus or recipes? How about other confusing or colorful phrases for food? If you’re a native Spanish speaker, anything to correct, clarify, comment on or concur with? Would “a caballo” be understood where you live? Is there another way you’d express it?


7 responses to “Hamburger on horseback

  1. Muy interesante, VB! Reminds me of Steak Tartare…. Which is often made of horse meat & arrives with an egg yolk riding on top. Reports indicate it does not taste like glue.


    • Raw meat topped by a raw egg? ¡Gracias, pero no!

      I never knew what steak tartare was– thanks for teaching me. I now feel more “cultured,” though I decline to take it any further than that ;)



  2. You also hit upon one of my other favorite perplexing Spanish words: “bistec”. I can understand why we would resort to “beisbol”, but why “bistec”?


  3. Thanks, that was hilarious! Not anything I’ll be ordering any time soon!

    Cesar: In Mexico (and I suppose other places too) they refer to beef as Carne as in carne asado etc. It always means beef. But steak is called bistec. Perhaps just a shortened pronunciation of beef steak?
    On that note, this recipe looks really good!


  4. Pingback: Learning Spanish from political cartoons | Vocabat

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